AUTUMN: the leaves outside may be turning gold, but the realisation that the days are getting shorter again and we have the whole of winter yet to come can certainly take the sheen off life.
This time of year has long provoked a desire in me to stock up on wine, chocolate, DVDs and good novels, light the fire and stay on the sofa till March... and I am far from alone.
We may joke about the desire to hibernate, but for the half a million people or so people in Britain believed to be afflicted with full-scale Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and up to one in five of us estimated to suffer less severe forms of the condition, also known as winter depression, the onset of autumn can herald months of true misery.
Around twice as many women as men are affected by SAD, and the condition (which is most likely to first strike in your thirties) has been linked to lack of sunlight exposure causing a decrease in levels of certain hormones and brain chemicals that control mood and sleeping patterns.
Although the illness is worst during the very darkest times of the year, symptoms can start as early as September, and some advocates of light therapy advise starting treatment to now, to prevent the condition from taking hold as the winter progresses.
Even for those who do not suffer from seasonal disorders, it is quite natural that, with the short days and cold, wet weather curtailing many of favourite activities, we generally feel less energetic as summer ends. So, as dark evenings blow in and the leaves start to turn from green to brown, we give you a guide to keeping a spring in your step right through the winter.
THE desire to turn to the comfort of stodgy foods such as chocolate and meals filled with fat and carbohydrates is common as cold weather sets it. In ancient times, high-calorie foods were vital to provide energy as temperatures dropped, in homes from hovels to castles across the land. But in today's centrally heated environs, they just contribute to weight gain and blood-sugar rushes that make us even more sluggish.
One of the key hormones affected by lack of sunlight is melatonin, which regulates your body clock and, if you were a bat, would tell you it was time to hibernate
We need serotonin to make melatonin. This can be taken in the form of supplement or can be boosted by certain foods. Indeed, dark chocolate, despite the aforementioned cautions, is believed to help with this (which is good news for the sweet-toothed among us), as are wholegrain foods.
To make serotonin, the body also needs a good supply of vitamin B6 - which can be found in carrots, fish, lentils, peas, potato, spinach and sunflower seeds, so it is a good idea to eat more of all of these foods during winter. Another natural winter mood-booster is an amino acid called L-tryptophan, which can be found in roasted pumpkin seeds, baked potatoes with their skins on, and seaweeds such as kelp.
Research has also indicated that vitamin D (the sunshine vitamin) can also help counteract SAD, because it is connected to an increase in serotonin. Although the body makes its own vitamin D in the summer, you need quite a bit of sunlight for that to happen, so in the winter try and eat more foods that are rich in vitamin D: fish with bones, fat-free and low-fat milk, fortified soy milk and egg yolks. Because vitamin D-rich foods are so limited, you might find it easier to take a daily supplement.
OK, SO you don't necessarily want to think about this one. Sitting watching TV beside a sun lamp while eating chocolate and other tasty foods is fair enough, but when it comes to dragging ourselves out into the miserable weather and putting ourselves through the exercise paces, we are more than a little reluctant.
Yet, if you can just gather enough motivation to get started, this is one of the best ways to cheer yourself up. For general (non-season specific) mood lifting, a recent study at California State University into strategies people used to make themselves feel better rated the number one way to improve your temper.
As well as pumping lots of oxygen round the body and giving us more energy, exercise encourages our systems to produce all sort of mood-enhancing chemicals including those lovely endorphins which can result in feelings of euphoria and really lift you out of the doldrums.
The first trial is to stop using your duvet as a winter comfort blanket and get up and outside in the early mornings. Go to bed and get up at the same times every day (sleeping for too long will just make you more lethargic, because it disrupts melatonin levels) and take full advantage of the early morning sunlight with a run, jog, or brisk walk before you go to work, combining a workout and light boost at the same time.
Sarah Jane Hunter, a Glasgow-based personal trainer, says: "During the shorter days people find it so much harder to get their backsides off the sofa and go out into the cold. But because we spend so much time inside in the winter with central heating, we start to get clogged up with bad skin, lung problems and our whole metabolisms slow down, so it's even more important to get outside into the fresh air. It does make such a different to your mood."
MUSIC, according to US researchers, is the second most successful way to change a bad mood, and raising energy and reducing tension.
Separate UK studies have found that patients suffering from depression have reported up to a 25 per cent increase in positive feelings after listening to cheerful or relaxing music. Music DJs are particularly aware of the impact of music on people's mood. Forth One's weekday presenter Iain Waugh, who also works in Edinburgh's nightclubs, says: "In the depths of winter, it's important on-air and in the clubs not to get as dingy as the weather... People want to be entertained, to be cheered up too, so the music can reflect that."
And, with ever-increasing numbers of us living alone, putting on your favourite tunes can also be a form of distraction and help stop feelings of loneliness.
Waugh lists the following as the best way to boost your mood: 1. Bob Marley's Sun is Shining Remix; 2. Dario G's Sunchyme; 3. Eric Clapton's Sunshine of Your Love; 4. Incognito's Always There; 5. Josh Ritter's Snow is Gone.
WHEN we describe people as having a sunny disposition or mood we're not always just talking figuratively. It is not simply the fact that we're on holiday that makes us feel happier when we're in sunnier climes - the light itself actually boosts mood improving chemicals in our body.
From September right through to April, many of us in northern Europe simply do not get enough sun and so one of the most commonly recommended way of tackling the winter blues is through light therapy. Usually emitted through "light boxes" or special lamps, these ultra-bright rays provide the light equivalent of a spring morning on a clear day.
The length of time you need to be exposed depends on the strength of the product used, with suppliers recommending anything from 15 minutes to more than two hours. At least 2,500 lux (a measure of brightness) is needed, which is five times brighter than a well-lit office. Thankfully, the treatment does not require one to sit staring in a hypnotised fashion straight at the light for hours, like these old fashion sun-lamps people used to use for face tanning.
You can have it on while watching TV or sitting at your desk and if you're more concerned with time than style, you can even wear a light visor, which allows you to get your light fix on the move.
Light therapy products are not cheap - expect little change from 100 for the cheapest lamps, with many costing around 250. However, reputable suppliers should allow you to experiment with products on a home-trial basis.
GO ON, just try it! Stop glowering, contort your gloomy features into a full-sized grin and giggle like you mean it. Numerous scientific studies have found that even if we pretend to laugh or act happy, our body produces "happiness" chemicals. Our bodies do not know the difference between thinking about doing something and actually doing it. Whatever the source of laughter, it leads to the same set of physiological changes in the body.
This is supported by the research of 19th-century French neurologist Duchenne, who found that a "real" smile (when the lips part and turn up and the muscles contract around the eyes to create crow's feet), involuntarily sends a signal of genuine joy to the brain of the person smiling.
So even an induced "real" smile can uplift your mood and, of course that of those you smile at!
Laughter also has wider health benefits and has been found to provide cardiovascular exercise, reduce the chances of respiratory problems and lower blood pressure. In fact it is so good for your health that it's sometimes called "internal jogging".
So forget the housework for a moment and put on a funny film, go and see a comedy show or just get together with friends who know how to make you laugh - then relax knowing you're doing it for the benefit of your health.
COLOUR can certainly have an impact on our moods, with bright shades long associated with positive feelings. But colours also have associated seasons and as we use the first September chill as an excuse to thankfully ensconce our less-than perfect pins in thick black tights, we tend to turn to equally mute and dark colours for the rest of our outfits, with browns and neutrals in autumn the back to black for winter.
One problem with choosing a cosy outfit to brighten up your mood is that the most enlivening colours are not the easiest to wear, and when adopted for a cosy winter jumper could all too easily leave you looking like you're wearing the hand-me-downs of a 1970s children's television presenter. However, if you are feeling confident enough in your style, yellow is excellent to wear when you're feeling down. It stimulates your desires, promotes positivity and prevents depression.
Another comforting colour is orange, which promotes spontaneity and warmth. Orange is bold and cheerful and improves social behaviour. Use in small doses, unless you want to look like something out of an advert for a well-known fizzy drink.
As for those beloved black tights, forget them. From cerise to turquoise, copy the models who have been skipping down the catwalks in opaque tights in the brightest colours.
WHILE it is highly likely that modern lifestyles, with their nine-to-five routines which do not allow us to adapt to the changing seasons, contribute to people feeling down during the darker days, the phenomenon has been around for millennia.
Under the 5,000-year-old Indian Ayurvedic (Science of Life) tradition, October marks the start of the Vata season, which is associated with coldness and dryness. Vata is one of the three Ayurvedic doshas (the others being Pitta and Kapha) which are said to determine an individual's constitution. To find out your dosha visit www.whatsyourdosha.com
Winter-time depression is said to be noticed mostly in people who have Vata as a major constituent in their body constitution.
Although each of thee different doshas will require slightly different ways of adapting to make the best of the coming season, the following general Ayurvedic tips may help to prevent and reduce the intensity of SAD and winter-time blues.
GET INTO A DAILY ROUTINE
Start by going to bed at the same time every night, preferably not much later than 10pm, and waking at the same hour every morning - 6am if possible. Regulate your meal times by having lunch at noon, and dinner in the early evening and make sure not to skip breakfast.
EAT WARMING, NOURISHING FOODS
Warm, moist, heavy foods will soothe and heat your Vata. Have fresh and hot stews, soups, dahls and porridge at meal times. Avoid leftovers, dry food like popcorn and raw or lightly cooked fruits and vegetables. Add a bit of oil or ghee while cooking, with some heating spices like cinnamon or ginger.
PICK SOOTHING TEAS AND SNACKS
Going hours without eating between meals can further aggravate Vata in this season, so prepare some moist rice pudding or stewed fruits for snacking. Do not snack on cold, dry foods such as sandwiches or cereal. Sipping warm ginger tea throughout the day will keep you warmed and hydrated. Before bed, have a cup of warm milk (those who are dairy intolerant can substitute rice milk or almond milk) with a pinch of ginger and some honey. (For recipe ideas try franlife.blogspot.com/2006/11/autumn-is-vata-season.html)
KEEP SKIN MOISTURISED
People with Vata constitutions tend to have extra dry skin, and everyone tends to suffer from drier skin in the colder weather because of central heating, so give your body a daily massage with sesame oil or rich cream every night and/or after bathing.
SOAK UP THE LIGHT
Reconnect with your body and calm your energy with light yoga and stretching. Walking is also excellent exercise, but bundle up and wear a hat to cover your Vata-sensitive ears. Daily meditation will also help de-stress.
WARMTH IN LIGHT AND COLOUR
Colour is considered another good way to balance doshas. Since Vata is cold, like the colours blue and violet, it is best to wear warm colours like golden yellow, orange and red at this time of year, particularly on cold and windy days.